Cash-strapped SBS cancels upcoming Drama series

Exclusive: TV Tonight has the first interview with new SBS Managing Director, Michael Ebeid, who has had to cancel a big budget drama due to a lack of funds.

EXCLUSIVE: TV Tonight has the first interview with new SBS Managing Director, Michael Ebeid, who explains he has had to cancel big budget drama series, Dusty, due to a lack of funds.

Two years ago under the previous management team SBS announced a new 13 part series about a female detective in Darwin, based on the book “The Build Up” by author Phillip Gwynne. To be produced by TMG Media, it was set to be the next drama successor to East West 101 and The Circuit.

But SBS will not be proceeding with the series.

“Given our very tight commissioning budget we just can’t afford to do any Drama of that size and magnitude. It takes up a large percentage of our commissioning budget and at the moment we are struggling as an organisation on a whole lot of fronts and we’ve got to make some really tough decisions about where we spend our money,” Ebeid explains.

“At the moment we are looking at everything, and you’d expect me to do that as an incoming CEO. One of the things we’re looking at is (asking) how do some our programmes on out slate sit with our content strategy? So we’re looking at our content strategy and making sure everything we’re doing sits well with that.

Dusty is a big, epic drama but it’s not cheap to make because of its size and location. So we decided given the amount of money, what could we do instead of that for the same money? And we decided we could probably achieve more programming that was more on Charter for less money.

“That said I would very much love to do more Drama. A big part of our Charter is to tell Australian stories, albeit with a multicultural bent, and Drama is a big part of the slate and genres that we have. But at the moment, given our budget, I just don’t see how we can keep affording to do big productions like that.”

SBS is now without any Australian Drama productions in production and none are expected to be approved before May. There are two new comedies coming up: Paul Fenech’s Houso’s, expected in November, and Adelaide-produced spy comedy Danger 5.

“It’s safe to say we won’t be able to do any Dramas in the short term until we are able to get a successful Triennial outcome,” Ebeid says.

“But we’ll have things on our radar between now and then so that if we are successful we’ll be able to hit the ‘go button’ reasonably soon after the next Federal Budget.

“We are spending less than about 1/10th of what the average network is spending on Drama. I’m spending an inordinate amount of my time working on the Triennial funding so that we can get money for more Australian content which would include a big chunk of Drama and I believe that’s really important for us going forward.”

As a public broadcaster SBS doesn’t have to meet the same Drama quota as commercial broadcasters, but therein lays a double-edged sword.

“It’s a shame in many ways because then the government would be forced to help us meet some of that Drama commitment,” Ebeid explains.

The loss of Dusty to SBS is also a blow to the production sector. Most Drama productions are centered in Sydney and Melbourne but Dusty would have provided employment opportunities to crews in the Top End.

“The commercial networks have been given a $250m license rebate which was a free-kick, no-strings-attached and they’re out there in the market with that extra money. The ABC is out there in the market with their $180m so between the two of them there’s $430m in the market that we’re needing to work against and it’s very difficult,” Ebeid insists.

“I’m hoping that given Senator Conroy has taken care of the ABC, pretty much taken care of the NBN and the Free to Air Networks, that we’re the last part of his portfolio that needs a bit of attention.”

But since taking on the new role at SBS, Ebeid says he has deemed some slates as being “over-committed.”

“One thing I’ve learned at SBS is there’s no shortage of wonderful ideas, but it also needs funding and when you’ve got a ceiling on how much revenue you can earn for yoursel – i.e. we have limits of 5 mins an hour on advertising, and we can’t do product placement- there’s a limit to what you can earn. The rest of it you rely on government funding.

“Our budgets are just so skinny at the moment, it’s really frightening.”

17 Responses

  1. Having lived in the UK it was interesting to watch Channel 4. Its owned by the government and has to fill in the gaps that are left by the BBC. Channel 4 doesn’t make any TV shows they are made for them by the likes of Shine etc.. Its like the BBC but more out there in content and is partly funded by the government and also has 12minutes of ads per hour, very commercial but has money and content and also E4 for the younger viewers, More4 for those who are more mature and don’t want to be spoken down to, 4Music enough said and Film4 showing great uncut classics first run and the films other channels don’t know what to do with (Straw Dogs) and all in HD. Could work for SBS.

  2. God how i wish i was rich because if i was i would buy SBS and turn it into a commecial network and expand its financial position and also their ability to creat great content. At the moment it is suffering under the financial constraints it has to deal with, very sad although i think deep down we all knew this was going to happen sooner or later.

  3. I agree with @Peter and @newtaste’s assessments but beg to differ slightly with @Ronnie’s comments because, in my humble opinion, East West 101 is simply one of the best dramas made in this country since Wildside.
    Unless I’m mistaken, EW101 would have come out of the SBS commissioning regime now at ABC?
    However, I don’t disagree with the proposition that SBS merge with ABC.
    Then again, I’m for discontinuing taxpayer funding and moving to user-pays licence fees, commercial sponsorships/breaks and a greater degree of accountability in programming that sees value for money and audience popularity/reach.
    Niche programming should probably be on subscription TV.

  4. A 13 part series in the Top End was always going to be ambitous and very expensive and consume the entire drama budget. It was very much a folly of the previous management. There are smarter ways to spend money on drama and not put too many eggs in one basket. Just ask the ABC with Crownies. Michael Ebeid sounds like he knows the business. Most sensible discussion from an SBS chief in years. A breath of fresh air. Conroy should give him the money and kick start SBS out of the doldrums. There is a real opportunity here.

  5. What is SBS doing with the advertising revenue and taxpayer funding it gets every year?

    I am betting there are a lot of executives wining and dining at SBS head office while deciding which repeat of Hitler’s Bodyguard they can schedule yet again.

    I am dreading the day that SBS announces that they are cancelling their superior football, Tour de France and other sporting telecasts due to lack of funding.

    Do we really need more Nine style sports programming? Rugby World Cup is on and matches are televised at 11.30pm after a romantic comedy movie!!!

  6. SBS drama has been lost in the wilderness for years now. More reason to merge with the ABC and let the ABC commission a far more diverse range on drama. Problem is the former head of Drama at SBS is the head of Drama at the ABC so the problem continues. It’s more than lack of money – it’s lack of vision, creativity and leadership.

  7. Why dont All networks have the same 5 mins per hour advertising content, and with the obscene amount of money going to AFL, it is no wonder that we are lacking in drama and SBS did it well with East West 101 and The Circuit. Shame to see drama (Aust) go from SBS.

  8. How much money has been wasted on scripts and pre-production? Where is the Screen Australia and NT Government funding that they would get, and the producer tax offsets? Why didn’t they get a production partner like one of the Foxtel channels? There are a few holes in this story.

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